Churches and charities caught in foreign influence net



7 December 2017 was the last sitting day of the Commonwealth Parliament last year. The media spotlight understandably was on the historic vote in the parliament giving the go ahead to same sex marriage.

xxxxxMeanwhile, the pressure was on Labor's Sam Dastyari to resign from the Senate in the wake of his dealings with Chinese business interests and of his political actions which may have been influenced by such dealings. Also, both sides of politics were having to admit that they had received significant donations from Chinese businessman Huang Xiangmo. Immediately following the bipartisan euphoria on the passage of the same sex marriage legislation, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull introduced to the House of Representatives a series of bills including the very shoddily drafted Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Bill 2017.

He told Parliament that the government was sticking to three principles: 'we are focused on the activities of foreign states and their agents in Australia and not the loyalties of Australians who happen to be from a foreign country'; 'interference is unacceptable from any country whether you might think of it as friend, foe or ally'; and 'we will not tolerate foreign influence activities that are in any way covert, coercive or corrupt'. He asserted, 'That is the line that separates legitimate influence from unacceptable interference.'

These three principles are fine. But the proposed legislation goes well beyond these principles. The line has not been well drawn. The legislation defines 'registrable activities' and then sets out a series of exemptions. The web of registrable activities is impossibly wide. The public servants trying to explain the operation of the bill gave an example of a priest preaching against euthanasia, asserting that 'the priest's position is consistent with the Catholic Church's position on voluntary euthanasia, as determined by Vatican City' and would thus be a registrable activity because the Vatican is a foreign government. But this registrable activity would then be exempt. They explained that the 'exemption seeks to avoid the activities of the churches affiliated with foreign government, such as the Catholic Church, being registrable under the scheme'. The drafters of the legislation have an Orwellian view that Catholics operate at the direction of foreign operatives.

The government hoped that the public consultation on this legislation would be complete before both Houses of Parliament resumed on 5 February 2018. But the shoddy drafting has occasioned such public concern that Andrew Hastie who is chairing the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Security and Intelligence has extended the time for public submissions until 15 February 2018.

Appearing before the committee last week, Catholic Bishop Robert McGuckin was unapologetic: 'I want to be clear in rejecting the characterisation of the Catholic Church found in the explanatory memorandum. Catholics are followers of Jesus Christ. We are not agents of a foreign government. The Catholic Church in Australia is made up of millions of Australian citizens who practice their Catholic faith, and they're not beholden to a foreign power.'

Andrew Hastie appreciated how cumbersome was the language of the bill and the mindset of the bureaucrats who drafted it. He told the bishop: 'I take the theological point that the Catholic Church is first and foremost a spiritual enterprise and not affiliated with a foreign government.' Another Government member on the committee, Julian Leeser, backed him up: 'I completely understand. Bishop McGuckin, let me say for myself: I accept your submission that the Catholic Church in Australia is not a foreign power.' Leeser conceded the need for clarification 'that effectively the Catholic Church in Australia isn't acting on behalf of the Pope or Vatican City or whatever it may be'.


"We are not agents of a foreign government. The Catholic Church in Australia is made up of millions of Australian citizens who practice their Catholic faith, and they're not beholden to a foreign power." — Bishop Robert McGuckin


Meanwhile the government is also doing battle on a broader front with charities, whether they be religious or not. Back in the Senate on the last sitting day of the year, Mathias Cormann the Minister for Finance, had introduced another cumbersome bill, the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform) Bill 2017. Cormann claimed the bill would 'improve the consistency of the regulatory treatment of all political actors'. This bill creates new classes of political campaigners and third party campaigners who have to account for their political expenditure. Many charities would now be classed as campaigners.

In the past, political expenditure required public disclosure if it funded the public expression of views about a political party or candidate during an election campaign. This bill would expand the definition of political expenditure to include any funds spent on the public expression of views on any issue that is, or is likely to be, before electors in an election, whether or not there is an election campaign underway. Vinnies campaigning about homelessness at any time would be required to comply with the reporting conditions.

Minister Cormann told the Senate, 'It is clear that elections are no longer just fought between political parties and candidates, and it is appropriate that all participants who choose to expend significant amounts of political expenditure are subject to transparency.' He explained how this was to be done: 'To keep foreign money out of Australian elections, political parties, candidates, Senate groups and significant political campaigners will be banned from receiving foreign gifts over $250, or any money transferred from foreign accounts.'

Vinnies have given an example of how the proposed law would operate, and what a chilling effect it would have on the usual expression of opinions you would expect in a democratic society and what a bureaucratic nightmare it could be for Vinnies just trying to do their job:

'Ms Y is an Australian citizen and the CEO of the Australian branch of a multi-national company. She regularly participates in the Vinnies CEO Sleepout to help the homeless. She encourages CEOs of her company in London, New York and Zurich to each donate $250 for her effort. She in turn donates to their charitable works when they occur.'

The $250 donations from the overseas donors would need to be placed in a separate account and could not be used for Vinnies' routine advocacy against homelessness, even when there is no election in the wind. While purporting to place restrictions on foreign donations, the provisions of this bill would not limit the activities of Huang Xiangmo who is a permanent resident of Australia and who has used Australian corporations to funnel large funds to the major political parties.

Minister Cormann has claimed, 'This bill simply seeks to keep foreign billionaires and foreign governments out of Australia's elections.' The political activities of charities are already regulated by charity law and the existing provisions of the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918. Charities which overstep the mark can already be pulled into line by the authorities including the ACNC (the Australian Charities and Not-for-Profits Commission).

Charities should be exempt from these further restrictive measures. Charities are not political parties, and they should not be treated like political parties. Keeping foreign billionaires and foreign governments out of Australia's elections can be done without keeping churches and charities out of routine advocacy for the poor and marginalised. Now that Sam Dastyari has resigned from Parliament, it's time for a more considered drawing of the line so that charities can continue to make their legitimate contribution to a better society while Australian electoral processes are spared covert, coercive or corrupt foreign interference.



Frank BrennanFrank Brennan SJ is the CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia.

Topic tags: Frank Brennan, charities, federal government, Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Bill



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Existing comments

This issue points to a broader issue threatening the democratic rights of ordinary citizens - it's irrelevant if someone is a church agent or a journalist - freedoms under the law should be equal. Journalists and religions should not be granted exemptions or protections under the law, but rather these freedoms should be taken for granted for every Australian citizen, and even those without citizenship for that matter (ie asylum seekers, foreign workers on visas and tourists)
AURELIUS | 05 February 2018

“The public … gave an example of a priest preaching against euthanasia …. The drafters … have an Orwellian view that Catholics operate at the direction of foreign operatives.” Such a timid example as preaching against euthanasia when preaching against same sex would have pepped up the discussion! Yes, JFK was wrong to tell the Baptist ministers in 1960 that his Church did not speak for him. Yes, the Pope should direct Australian Catholics that same sex is wrong even though the Australian majority doesn’t think so. Yes, that direction should be registrable. Otherwise, directions from Orthodox, Islamic and, say, Swedish Lutheran religious authorities, all of whom are paid by their respective governments, could well bear the manipulations of their governments. It’s no secret that Catholic decrees come from a foreign state. Are Russian Orthodox decrees influenced by Putin, or Islamic edicts by Egypt, Saudi Arabia or Iran? If unacceptable interference (a tautology) occurs when influence is ‘covert, coercive or corrupt’, fix ‘covert’ and ‘corrupt’ by making the directions public. As to whether it’s ‘coercive’ for JFK’s Church to speak for him, the bishops should be taking the battle back to those who make the claim: so what? that’s religion.
Roy Chen Yee | 06 February 2018

It's horrifying that without any warning the government has surreptitiously returned us to the days when Catholics, especially priests and religious and most especially Jesuits, were condemned as being "the sworn soldiers and servants of a foreign Prince" and so ipso facto traitors to their country and its monarch. The reason is becoming clear why the government's solemnly promised abundant protections for conscientious objectors if "single-sex marriage" was legislated, vanished into nothing as soon as the vote was passed, with the glib assurance that no protections are needed for "bigots".
Peter K | 06 February 2018

It was certainly a day for shoddily written legislation! Advocacy is a right that should be restricted to the individual and their local member, not corporations or those funding the political parties to achieve a policy outcome at odds with the commonwealth. Think Ireland and SSM etc, foreign dollars did much to get a worldwide outcome there and continues with the right to life next.
James Knight | 06 February 2018

One further observation - the bureaucrats have alread decided and acted on what is and isn't political matter irrespective of elections -
James Knight | 06 February 2018

In a typically ham fisted way, the Government's efforts to nobble GetUp has resulted in a Bill that sets out to look like a seriously thought out document and succeeds in offending everybody, with the possible exception of Peter Dutton. Surely there are enough Catholics (nominal or practising) in Govt. or Opposition to see through this maze and see it for the draconian, unworkable Bill it is.
Michael Yewdall | 07 February 2018

Thanks for the clarification, Frank. Your clear expositions of the ramifications of proposed legislation is always very helpful. We rely on you to continue doing this.
Kevin Liston | 07 February 2018

Thanks Fr Frank for this informative article. How naive of the government to think that they can try and "same" faith and law ... there is such a thing as conscience ... and that can influence both! Perhaps government needs to think about how other countries like the USA influence our foreign policy positions ... or how the argument for euthanasia in Victoria has been influenced by other countries' laws and policy positions. How come government is willing to hand over tax-payer funded programs to faith-based organisations when they know that it is only faith that can carry the people in their work with 'the other'? I think maybe the government is getting faith and dogma mixed up ... Henry VIII and Constantine the Great knew the stakes and looked what happened there!
Mary Tehan | 07 February 2018

Thank you, Frank Brennan. I wrote the first published submission to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security critiquing this dangerous legislation a month ago. Since then, there has been a flood of critical submissions including from churches, charities, major media organisations and individual citizens. I criticised the way this legislation violates Australians’ basic freedoms of expression and association. Piling on ‘exceptions’ does not help - the basic legislation is wrongly conceived. Take my case. I have published in a book and in many articles and speeches views on Australian policy towards Russia and China that are contrary to the current Australian government line, and similar to Russian and Chinese government positions on , for example, the need for Russia-West detente, and on the South China Sea islands. I came to these views independently and in good conscience. I have travelled twice to Russia in the past two years - I am there now - both times paying my own way. I wrote a favourable book on Russia, ‘Return to Moscow’ . I may seek to publish articles when I return home, reporting what I found in Crimea, where I visited last week and was received by the Crimean Prime Minister Sergey Aksyonov at a meeting reported in the Crimean and Russian media. I publicly advocated during and after this meeting for an end to Western sanctions against Crimea and Russia. I said that I had found Crimea a generally happy and well-governed place since the events of 2014. Were the Foreign interference legislation in place now, I would have to register as a Russian agent. This is wrong. I have simply as a loyal Australian expressed views that our current policy towards Russia on the contentious Ukraine issue is wrong. I am only an example. There is nothing exceptional about my case. It could apply to any Australian citizen expressing or advocating views about any foreign country. We are a democracy that supports our citizens’ freedom of speech and association. I should have a right to express such views, even to advocate them, without registering as a Russian agent. It will be disgraceful if this proposed Australian law forces me to do so. I hope to be able to testify accordingly to the Parliamentary Committee which is hearing public submissions on this draft law, after I return home on 15 February.
TonyKevin | 07 February 2018

Lucidly explained & not a moment to lose, Frank. I have added my voice to your's today.
Michael Furtado | 12 February 2018

Spot on AURELIUS. 'Liberty', said the Declaration of the Rights of Man, 'consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else'. The implication was that laws that constrained liberty must be justified on the basis that they prevented harm to others. But now we have more and more laws that criminalise otherwise free actions and then licence the freedom back by granting exemptions.
Ginger Meggs | 12 February 2018

Well. I wonder if state campaigns are included. If so, I wonder if the legislation would cover the generous expenditure in Tasmania that aims to protect the continuing existence of pokies in our pubs and clubs, by returning a Liberal state government.
Maxine Barry | 12 February 2018

It may also be that the drafters of the legislation do with justification have an 'Orwellian view that Catholics operate at the direction of foreign operatives', especially in regard to the universal breaches of protocols that account for Catholic institutions, more than any other, to abuse or hide evidence of the abuse of vulnerable minors. As the veneer of a virtuous persona - post Royal Commission - becomes harder to maintain, the mask of innocence and naivete adopted by our Bishops and Religious Institutes speaks to another and more urgent truth that Francis Sullivan persistently addresses. In sum, Frank, it can be seen that the Church's position evokes the secret it hides! This peaks to a larger and more universal guilty solipsism - the Church's truth versus that of the citizenry - lying not in separation or division but somewhere between what is seen and not seen. What is surely now needed is for Catholics to give shape to our painful uncertainty, as we have no moral currency to call our own. One solution is for us to 'integrate' our Catholic schools and hospitals into the tax-exempt public sector, as in NZ, thereby reducing the number of charities seeking exemptions.
Michael Furtado | 13 February 2018

Given now that Pope Franicis seems to be willing to hand the appointment of Chinese Catholics bishops into the clutches of the Chinese Communist Party - why should be be concerned about a "liberal democracy" influencing church policy? It just goes to show - the old left/right rhetoric is redundant, and it just goes to show that free market democracies as just as much a threat to religious freedom as communism. It makes all the fuss about the Cold War and the threat posed by liberation theology in Latin America seem a bit of a waste of time and energy, doesn't it?
AURELIUS | 26 February 2018


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